Ilya Barabanov, Svetlana Reuters, Andrey Soshnikov, Andrey Zakharov, Sergey Goryashko – BBC – 31 January 2019
Six months ago, Russian journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko were killed in the Central African Republic. At that moment, there were several dozen Wagner PMC fighters and civilian specialists in the CAR who could work for St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. A list of 10 names of fighters who allegedly visited the CAR was published by the Security Service of Ukraine in late December. BBC Russian service correspondents went to St. Petersburg to talk to them. They all refused to be offended. But one of the civilian specialists who worked in the CAR for Prigozhin’s structures told what they were doing at the time when the film crew was in the country. He agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity for security reasons, but the BBC has independent confirmation of his words.
Yevgeny Prigozhin through his press service for the first time commented on his alleged activities in the CAR, his answers are given in full at the end of the article.
Former police officer Sergei Yudov stood on the threshold of his apartment on Kuznetsov Avenue in the south of St. Petersburg, clutching in his hands a cuttings from a shovel and trying to hit someone from the BBC correspondents with it. Until recently, he allegedly worked for wagner’s so-called private military company (“Wagner PMC”) and was most likely in the CAR at the time of the murder of Russian journalists.
The man’s desire was restrained by a bodyguard attracted by the editorial office to help journalists. “What do you need? What do you need? Come again – there will be a bullet in the forehead to each. I warned everyone, either here or there,” Yudov promised goodbye, when it became obvious that this time he would not be able to beat anyone.
BBC correspondents tried to meet with Yudov for two days in a row: according to some reports, in August 2018 he could leave the ranks of the Wagner PMC.
On the journalists’ first visit to Yudov’s home, he refused to open the door.
– You’re wrong, it’s not me. Guys, go ****, I’m going to call the cops now.
– What’s your name?
– I’m not called, I’m coming myself.
At the disposal of the BBC was a copy of the old passport of Sergei Yudov, during a personal meeting with him, BBC correspondents were convinced that this was the same person.
Attempts to contact him through relatives failed. His eldest son claimed in correspondence that his father’s name was allegedly Vasily and he died 15 years ago of cancer. At the same time, the young man was at Yudov’s home when correspondents came there: he left the apartment and ran past them.
The next day, Yudov left the apartment with a shovel cutting.
Interests in the CAR
In addition to Russian military instructors such as Yudov, there were political strategists, translators and even a gemologist – a specialist in precious stones, for analysis to which diamonds were brought almost every day to Bangui (the capital of the CAR).
“He approves candidates for all key positions in the CAR personally, his character is short-tempered, and if he has decided something, then it is better not to argue – unless you have one hundred percent arguments,” says a BBC interlocutor who worked in the CAR about the owner of Concord, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is called “Putin’s cook” and the creator of the Wagner PMC in the media, he is under US sanctions. Prigozhin himself denies any connection with the Wagner PMC.
Russian specialists working in Bangui learned about the murder of journalists the next day early in the morning, a BBC source who was working in the CAR at the time told the BBC.
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Later in the evening, the team was addressed by the Assistant to the President of the Central African Republic for Security Valery Zakharov, who may also work for Prigozhin.
“He said that we had nothing to do with it, but since the dead are Russian citizens, we will need to help with sending the bodies,” the BBC interlocutor says. “He told us the same version, which was later voiced everywhere, that for some reason they left Sibut late at night, although at the checkpoint they were warned about the danger of moving in the dark, and on the way they were attacked by some bandits.”
Even Prigozhin’s employees who lived in Bangui tried not to move around the city in the evening: “Locals guarded us, and if in the evening someone wanted to go to the city – it was necessary to inform the elder, then he sent “coals” to the city (the author’s vocabulary is preserved to indicate the attitude of the hero to the local population – BBC). The word “negroes” and all the locals know, so that the inhabitants of the CAR are called “coals” by the Russians among themselves, our military instructors call their wards from the army and gendarmerie of the CAR, who are trained, “the BBC source recalls.
He describes the level of danger on local roads succinctly: “A charred skeleton of a car and a charred corpse once lay on the road.”
Gold and Radio
What were the structures allegedly associated with Prigozhin doing when the film crew was in the country?
In mid-July, Corbeau News reported that Russia had agreed to develop the Ndassima gold deposit with the CAR government. Later, The Bell discovered permits for other fields with a total area of 4 thousand square kilometers.
The Ndassima field is located north of the city of Bambari, where Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko were heading to meet with Martin, whom they were advised as a guide and consultant, but were killed. Their plans also included an attempt to survey the field, where Russian specialists work.
As the Russian service of the BBC found out, soon after the publication, it was Prigozhin’s employees who sent a video to local media that was supposed to refute the work of Russians at the field.
For example, on the Facebook page of Le Rassembleur, the BBC found a one-minute video of the “Mines of Ndassim”, published on August 5, in which black people dig in the ground, and a person behind the scenes asks them questions (translated from French):
– Where, in what region?
– In Bambari.
– And the sector in which region?
– Are there any foreigners among you?
“Yes, I do.” Or are you all sons of your country?
– We are all sons of our country, but there are foreigners here too.
– Which foreigners?
– There are Senegalese, Malians.
At the end of the video, people in the frame discuss among themselves that they are looking for gold.
As the BBC was able to establish, in fact, the video was shot not at the field itself, which occupies at least one hectare, but on a small site in the jungle near Bangui.
In addition to gold, says the interlocutor of the BBC, in the CAR Prigozhin is interested in the woodworking business – in particular, mahogany.
Prigozhin’s press service in a comment to the BBC said that there are no companies in the CAR associated with the businessman, and he himself is not engaged in gold mining in Ndassim and is not interested in the woodworking business in the country.
In turn, BBC sources say that the work of Russian military specialists is not limited to protecting business interests and training local security forces. Structures associated with Prigozhin hold football tournaments, beauty contests and film screenings in the CAR, build playgrounds and help in planning the election campaign of the country’s President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who will have to fight for a second presidential term in 2020.
In preparation for the elections, a new radio station was launched in the country, since radio is the most popular and often the only source of information for the local population.
The fact that the creation of the radio station was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the BBC was told by two competent interlocutors. One of them called the approximate amount of investment – 10 thousand dollars. The radio station was called “Lengo Songo”, prigozhin’s employees flew from St. Petersburg to its launch, two sources in structures associated with the businessman told the BBC. Prigozhin himself denies this.
In December, Coda wrote in its report from the CAR: “Advertising billboards on the streets of Bangui are painted in the colors of the CAR flag with an advertisement for the new radio station Lengo Songo 98.8 FM – which in sango means “Building Solidarity”. So far, the radio station, the construction of which was also paid for by the Russians, transmits only music, but regular news releases and talk shows are already being prepared. “
A well-known journalist in the CAR, Fred Kroc, was invited to lead the radio station. In November 2018, Kroc at a press conference on the occasion of the launch of the radio station confirmed that it was launched “thanks to the support of Russia” and should help “restore the country.”
While the election campaign in the CAR has not yet begun, says the interlocutor of the BBC, the radio station does not yet create any news or political content: at one time Russian and Soviet music was staged there, including “Get up, the country is huge.”
Scheme of work
The salary of a Russian military instructor in the CAR is 250 thousand rubles, which is received at home by proxy by one of the family members. On the spot, about a thousand dollars are issued once a month.
Phones with Russian SIM cards of Russians in the CAR are asked not to use, but instant messengers can be used to communicate with relatives, two interlocutors of the BBC, associated with the structures of Yevgeny Prigozhin, said. Another BBC source, who previously worked in the CAR, clarifies that you can also purchase a local SIM card.
Before being sent to the country, all Russians sign a non-disclosure paper, and the military and gendarmes, who are trained by Russian instructors, undergo a polygraph test.
At the same time, the missions of Russian mercenaries are already working not only in the CAR and Sudan, which has long been known, but also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo bordering them.
Russian specialists in the CAR are registered in the staff of lobaye Invest. Africa Intelligence called Lobaye Invest a subsidiary of M-Finance, representing Prigozhin’s interests and specializing in gem mining. Prigozhin himself denies this.
“M-Finance” is registered in the business center “Triangle” on the embankment of the Obvodny Canal. Arriving at the company’s registration address, BBC correspondents found the company’s office locked. The Triangle cleaner said that no one has appeared in this office since the summer of 2018.
According to the BBC source, two Dmitrys are accompanied to all negotiations with the rebels and the opposition by valery Zakharov, assistant to the president of the CENTRAL African Republic for security. One of them is a translator, the second is the founder of Lobaye Invest Dmitry Sytyi.
According to the Dossier Center, the name of the 29-year-old Syty is on the financial documents of the mining company in the CAR Lobaye Invest, and at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2018, he got into one photo (the second from the right) with the President of the CAR Touadera. No later than April 2018, Satiy went to the Central African Republic as a “civilian instructor”.
In reports of local media, Sytyi is called the translator of Yevgeny Kopot, Zakharov’s assistant in the CAR. The story tells about the distribution of humanitarian aid in the Muslim quarter of Bangui. “We couldn’t stay away,” Says Kopot.
According to the BBC source, one of the tasks that Russian instructors are trying to solve in the CAR is to reconcile the Muslims and Christians living in the country after many years of civil war. Russian instructors train both Muslims and Christians: in between trainings, prayer services are held for representatives of different faiths.
History of death
None of the Wagner PMC fighters who visited the CAR, who were approached by BBC correspondents, wanted to give interviews and talk about their work in the CAR at the time when Russian journalists were killed there.
BBC correspondents were unable to find in St. Petersburg the place where Alexander Sotov lives, who, according to the “Dossier” center of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, could organize surveillance of journalists and was in constant contact with the local gendarme Emanul Kotofio, who also provided for it.
He does not live at any of the addresses where Sotov was registered. Neighbors have never seen a person like him.
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Dzhemal, Rastorguyev and Radchenko were killed in the CAR on the night of July 31. They travelled to Africa from the Khodorkovsky-funded Investigation Management Centre (LRC) to make a film about the activities of the Wagner PMC.
In the CAR, journalists managed to work for three days. They were killed as they were traveling from the capital, Bangui, to the town of Bambari, where they planned to meet a guide named Martin. His contacts were given to them by Kirill Romanovsky, an employee of the RIA FAN publication, which, according to RBC, is controlled by Prigozhin.
On the way to Bambari, the journalists, for an unknown reason, changed the route and from the city of Sibut drove in the direction of the city of Dekoa, where their car was attacked.
Immediately after the murder, RIA FAN paid for the trip of a group of journalists to the CAR. It included the agency’s correspondent Kirill Romanovsky, photographer Denis Tarasov and journalist of the St. Petersburg edition of Fontanka Yulia Nikitina. The only conclusion that journalists came to in the course of their investigation is that there was never any Martin in Bambari and no one was waiting for journalists there.
In August 2018, investigators of the Investigative Committee of Russia (ICR) also flew to the CAR on a brief visit. Russian President Vladimir Putin, at his traditional big press conference in December 2018, answering a question about the progress of the investigation, said that journalists were killed as a result of a robbery and attack that “was committed by one of the local groups.” The same version is still adhered to by the ICR.
In early January, khodorkovsky also presented the results of his own investigation conducted by the Dossier Center. The group he organized concluded that martin’s fixer most likely did not exist, and journalists were under surveillance from the very beginning, which could be carried out by Prigozhin’s employees in the CAR and local gendarmes.
The BBC contacted Kirill Romanovsky and asked him clarifying questions in connection with the publication of the investigation of the Dossier Center. Romanovsky says that Martin’s phone was given to him by their mutual acquaintance Abu, whom they met by chance in a Berlin store.
According to the Dossier Center, after the death of the journalists, a journalist under the pseudonym MilRep could discuss the place of that meeting with Abu with Mikhail Burchik (pseudonym “Mikhail Sporin”), whom the media called the executive director of Prigozhin’s “troll factory”.
Romanovsky declined to comment on the correspondence published by the Dossier Center. According to him, “he fundamentally does not comment on screenshots from the network” and “the place of meeting with Abu was not discussed with anyone”, because he remembers him only “approximately”.
Romanovsky claims that he did not correspond with Abu, but communicated with Martin using an old smartphone on which the screen broke. “Having promptly fixed it, I provided the IC with all the necessary information from this phone,” Romanovsky told the BBC.
According to him, the phone stored correspondence with Martin only for 2018. To a clarifying question about where the device is now located, Romanovsky replied that “all the necessary information is in the UK” and he “back in July” told the head of the LRC Andrei Konyakhin about Martin “everything that he knew.”
Investigators of the Khodorkovsky Center claimed that in June 2018, an employee of RIA FAN was secretly awarded the Order of Courage. Romanovsky confirmed to the BBC that he had state awards, but did not answer a clarifying question about whether he had this particular order.
Also at the disposal of the BBC was the correspondence that Romanovsky in the autumn of 2018 could conduct with the editor-in-chief of RIA FAN Evgeny Zubarev. In it, he reported that he had written an article “about Khodorkovsky’s new attempts to whitewash himself and the company” (the article mentioned the SDGs), and asked the editor to “simplify for the average reader” and not to indicate his authorship when publishing.
The text was published on RIA FAN under the name Alexei Zhvakin. “He did not publish under the above-mentioned pseudonym. My only pseudonym is Kirill Otter,” Romanovsky wrote to the BBC correspondent and offered to contact the author of the article through the RIA FAN editorial office. “Alexey is our freelance writer, I will give him your contacts,” Zubarev replied in a letter to the BBC.
Shortly after the death of journalists in the CAR, Romanovsky, explaining why he decided to introduce them to Martin, whose contacts he had no contacts and whose name he did not remember, told RT that at the end of June 2018 he was asked if he had a person who understood something in the African topic: “And I remembered that I have an acquaintance, with whom we last spoke in 2012. He was somehow connected to the UN mission and I just gave them his contacts.”
At the same time, he did not mention that in May 2018 he himself made a trip from Sudan to the CAR, accompanying trucks with humanitarian aid sent by Prigozhin’s company. His trip became known only on January 10 from the investigation of the Dossier Center.
Romanovsky did not deny it, saying: “It was a private commercial order for photos and videos of a humanitarian convoy delivering field hospitals, medicines and other humanitarian equipment to help the inhabitants of the CAR. I didn’t talk about it because the order was purely private.”
Romanovsky confirmed to the BBC that the humanitarian convoy he was escorting to the CAR had started from Sudan but was unable to answer the question of who had sent him an invitation to obtain a Sudanese visa.
As a source familiar with the details of the trip told the BBC, the well-known security and insurance company ASWAR Multi Activities could become the sponsor of the visa for Romanovsky and his colleague at RIA FAN in Sudan. The Russian service of the BBC sent a request to the company, but did not receive a response.
From 2013 to 2014, the company received four contracts from the UN Refugee Agency for security services totaling $ 1.3 million, and in 2016 – $ 934,000 from the Canadian government for the protection of the embassy. The company cooperates with other state and international institutions, according to its website.
Romanovsky told the BBC that he was unfamiliar with the company’s name and that he did not know who had made him the invitation to visit Sudan.
At the end of 2018, the situation in Sudan escalated: as The Times wrote , up to 40 demonstrators were killed during the suppression of anti-government protests in this country. The publication claims that the regime of President Bashir was defended by fighters of the same “Wagner PMC”. The same was stated by the Security Service of Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin answered the BBC’s questions in writing through his press service.
BBC: Are there currently companies associated with you operating in the Central African Republic?
Press service of Yegeniya Prigozhin: There are no companies in the CAR associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin.
BBC: Are you related to the recently launched Lengo Songo radio there?
P.E.P.: Evgeny Prigozhin has nothing to do with the radio “Lengo Songo”.
BBC: Is it true that you invested about $10,000 in this radio?
P.E.P.: It does not correspond, Yevgeny Prigozhin did not invest money in it.
BBC: Are you interested in the woodworking business in the CAR?
P.E.P.: He is not interested in the woodworking business in the CAR.
BBC: Have the structures associated with you been involved in gold mining in Ndassim?
P.E.P.: Evgeny Prigozhin was not engaged in gold mining in Ndassim. According to available sources, it is known that the Canadian company AXMIN has a license to develop gold in the Ndassima area.
BBC: Is Lobaye Invest affiliated with you?
P.E.P.: Lobaye Invest is not affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin.
The press service of Prigozhin added that the entrepreneur is under sanctions and manages only three companies – Concord Management and Consulting LLC, CONCORD Food Plant LLC and Concord Catering LLC. They also noted that some information about Lobaye Invest has already been published by other media – in particular, The Bell, BBC, Fontanka and others.